Although we may have wanted to go hiking in southern Patagonia slightly more than we wanted to keep biking, the real reason we cut off the last 250km of the Carreterra was far more noble. The road was getting too easy and too populated and now that we’re three months into the trip, we needed a bit more of a challenge. And just to prove how well we’ve mastered the whole bike touring thing, our last 30 km on the Carreterra included me toppling off my bike yet again (I’m ashamed to admit this is now almost a daily occurrence). So we said goodbye to the “trail of tears” (Alex’s name for the Carreterra in honor of my many falls – but no real tears have ever been shed…obviously) and headed east into the Valle Chacabuco.
The turnoff was ambiguous i.e. completely unmarked, but the map showed only one road leading to the Argentinean border so it had to be the right one. Immediately the landscape changed from one dominated by the Rio Baker’s turquoise ribbon, a deep gorge snaking below us, making its way from distant glaciers, to a dry windswept valley of yellow shrubs and endless skies. This is the future Conservacion Patagonia, a giant national park in the making, spearheaded by American philanthropist and North Face founder, Doug Tomkins. Herds of Guanacos, some rabbits, and the endangered Huemul, or Andean deer, roam the “Serengeti of the Southern Cone.”
The wildlife sitings were exciting, but what really convinced us that this was maybe the best road of the trip was the lack of fences. This may seem like a strange point of appeal, but when you pedal for miles and miles down a road lined with barbed wire you end up feeling a bit cut off from your surroundings. And when every day is about moving through a place slow enough so that it’s not just a blur, fenced off landscapes feel like a sort of betrayal. Of course, this is a completely ridiculous notion. People own land and have a right to protect it from rogue gringos who might otherwise pitch their tent on a scenic patch of their property. All the same, it was refreshing to come across a landscape that was as accessible as it was wild.
Further down the road we came across the future park headquarters, right now just a construction site, but the luxury lodge looked pretty much complete. From here it was 60 km to the border crossing and even farther to anything resembling a town. As the Chacabuco valley emptied us onto the open steppe near the border, the notorious winds that blow down from the Andes hit – luckily behind us or we might not have made it. On the barren plateau that led to the border, we barely survived a brutal stretch of loose gravel and crosswinds that threatened to blow us (mostly me) off the road. According to the officials, we were the only people crossing into Argentina that day, and apparently this is standard for the Paso Roballo. They shut down this station in about a month because winter makes the rough road impassable.
There was evidence that motorcyclists come this way, but not surprisingly, no cyclists. The reason became clear when we checked with the border officials how far it was to Lago Posadas, the nearest dot on the map that looked like a town. From our map, it looked about 20 km past the border, but it was actually more like 70. The scale must have been off. We left anyways – in the howling wind – leaving the border patrolmen staring at us with a mixture of incredulity and mild concern.
We pedaled into a landscape of dry cracked lake beds, eroded rocks, and wind whipped silence. Empty and desolate, it felt like the end of the earth, a feeling compounded by the impossibly distant horizon. After two hours of biking on a road that would not have looked out of place on the moon, we took a turnoff for an unmarked town and hoped it would lead to somewhere. The food situation was getting dire. We kept pedaling while the sun set, looking for some kind of shelter from the wind, but there was none. We camped on the side of road and spent a sleepless night hoping the tent wouldn’t rip apart.
Next morning we arrived triumphantly in Lago Posadas, ravenous, but relieved to have made it to an actual town. Even this far south though, the hours of siesta are holy and we couldn’t find a single place to get food for another two hours. We passed the time on the side of the road hoping a truck heading to Bajo Caracoles would give us a lift. No such luck. We gave up as soon as we could eat and decided to start biking in the morning.
Chatwin describes Bajo Caracole as “a crossroads of insignificant importance with roads leading all directions apparently to nowhere.” His description pretty much sums up this dusty little gas stop in the middle of Ruta 40’s most remote section. Even arriving here after the Paso Roballo didn’t change our perspective much.
But this bit of nowhere was the start of our little 400 km shortcut. Patagonia is a big empty place, but it has some of the most famous hikes in the world and after almost three weeks of straight biking, we were ready for a walking break. Our bikes on the bus, we headed south on Ruta 40 to El Chalten. It almost felt like cheating as we blasted along the gravel highway for seven hours of empty steppe that expanded into an even bigger sky. At this point, getting off the road and into the mountains for a few days of hiking was more appealing.
But none of these moderately adventurous experiences compares to the momentous occasion that was Alex’s newly clean shaven face. Yes, The Beard is finally gone. Two months of wild tangled growth have been reduced to some patchy scruff and strange facial tan lines. Since he didn’t have much luck with real barbers, Alejandro took matters into his own hands and spent an hour taming the beast with my Swiss army knife scissors. He now looks like a semi normal individual – aside from the zip off pants and bike shoe booties he wears on a daily basis. I don’t look any better.
See below for pictures of the new face (along with some of Bajo Caracole and its most interesting sight: the sunset)